Late adopter tax: low-def viewers in a high-def world.

“Yet another shot of the old tv in chinook motel” by gothopotam.

Whether or not this is television’s “Golden Age”, two stellar dramas have my family hooked. The BBC’s Sherlock artfully blends a beloved literary and cheeky self-awareness. Netflix’s House of Cards exposes the capital’s seedy underbelly with horrifying, delightful glee.

Both programs employ a new storytelling device: on-screen digital exchanges. Rather than employ static shots of tiny, hand-held devices, Sherlock and Cards composite text messages into the live-action footage. The clever technique shows the audience both the messages and the characters’ reactions, all in one shot.

Only… with our standard-def television, we can’t read the messages. These composited, in-frame texts show up as illegible smudges. Every time they pop up, we’re forced to lean forward and squint, desperately hoping to keep up with the plot.

A decade ago, some studio suit would have nixed this “texts-on-screen” idea, since HDTVs hadn’t yet been adopted en masse. All programming had to accommodate both the new widescreens and the boxey, standard-def sets. Cameras tracked characters slavishly, locking them to the center of the shot. Any on-screen graphics—network logos, scrolling credits, sports stats—couldn’t extend beyond the standard-def frame, or they wouldn’t be visible on older screens.

These techniques bridged the gap between the standard-def and high-def eras, but the compromise approach had serious drawbacks on all sides. Those with older TVs literally missed the big picture, since portions of the frame were cropped away. Early HDTV adopters, meanwhile, had to endure obtrusively-placed graphics. Finally, content creators couldn’t freely explore the newly-expanded TV canvas.

Eventually, times changed. HDTV prices plummeted, and most Americans eagerly adopted the superior technology. The studios responded, too, abandoning the transitional tricks and filming with widescreen sets in mind. The leftover standard-def viewers, dwindling in numbers, are an afterthought. Their programming is letterboxed, shrinking both the picture and any on-screen text.[1]

HDTV’s first devotees paid an “early adopter tax” for their enthusiasm. Their sets cost a small fortune, and high-def content was often hard to find.

But there’s a “late adopter tax”, too. As a legacy technology falls out of favor, old-school users get inconvenienced. In our case, that means squinting our way through House of Cards.

  1. To be clear, I strongly prefer letterboxed content over “pan-and-scan” edits.  ↩